It’s organic too.
It’s organic too.
In the event that anyone is curious, there is no etymological connection between spells (as in magic) and spelling (as in writing a word letter by letter). The noun “spell” comes from the Old English word spel which was a charm or incantation used in druidic practices. The verb “spell” on the other hand comes from the Old French word espeler or, possibly an older version, espeldre. This makes some sense considering the fact that when England was taken over by the Normans in the 11th century, English only had a very rudimentary writing system which mostly consisted of runes the their spiritual leaders used as (you guessed it) magical symbols. It might not be immediately apparent, but it makes sense that if the speakers of Old English did not have a writing system, there would be no real reason to have a word for spelling. The end result is that “spell (n)” and “spell (v)” developed along different pathways and only recently merged into the same spelling and sounds. Thus, the two words have no etymological connection.
All that being said, there does seem to be something of a psychological connection that we have built between language and some kind of power. For an everyday example, we tend to recognize it almost immediately when a politician is using language to be somewhat manipulative. The most recent example in my mind is Governor Chris Christie’s response to the recent bridge scandal. One of his personal comments was “Mistakes were made.” It’s very easy to see that the focus of a comment like this is the mistake, not who made the mistake or what reasons were behind the mistake. The use of the agentless passive, then, tipped a lot of people off to the fact that the language that Christie was using was somehow manipulative. This is not the only example either. Stories as old as the ones in the bible have similar examples: take Daniel chapter 5. In this story, King Belshazzar is giving a huge banquet for some of his wealthiest friends and allies. Having consumed more than his fair share of wine, the king commands that more wine be brought this time in the golden vessels that were used for worship in the Israelite temple. As soon as he began to drink from these, a disembodied hand wrote four unintelligible words on the wall of the king’s palace. The king’s first response: call all his wise men and magicians to try to decipher the writing. Even more recently, we have examples of entirely intriguing untranslated languages like Linear A that we just can’t quite understand. Or, when we see something like The Voynich Manuscript, an untranslatable book that was written in the early 15th or 16th century, our first thoughts are not “this guy must have been seriously tripping;” instead, we think “what could this mean?” Some even go so far as to ascribe the writing to things like angels, demons, aliens, ancient magic, or all kinds of other decidedly “out there” ideas.
So why do we have this connection? Or, what makes us realize that language is something that can be used for our own ends be they good or bad? I think that it goes back to how we actually view language itself. Of course, I can’t speak for every population of speakers; however, here in America (and probably quite a few other English speaking countries), we see language as a tool that we use for communication, social interaction, conflict, planning, and, possibly above all else, power. Like any tool, those who can use language the best are the ones that have the ability to use it for their own ends. In a society that attempts to be as egalitarian and democratic as possible (whether or not that is the case is a matter that is entirely beyond the scope of this blog), we become uncomfortable when we feel that someone has an upper hand on us. Knowing how to use language and how to manipulate it to manipulate people is treated (as it probably should be) as inherently diabolical. Because of this, we associate it with something else we find just as evil: magic and the unknown. Now, I don’t believe in the existence of magic or human beings’ ability to manipulate any kind of higher power to their own ends; however, this is the view that people take with language. No one is comfortable with the thought of someone using a supernatural power to manipulate people, and that same uncomfortable feeling happens when we realize that people are using an entirely natural ability (like language) for manipulation.
This, of course, brings us to an interesting question: does language actually have power? In so far as we can actually recognize when people are using language for their own ends, the inevitable answer is yes, yes it does. Or, at least, it can if used in certain ways. If that is the case, then maybe it should change the way we think about the things we hear. We’re constantly surrounded by language in various forms: news stories, political sound bites, class lectures, talks with friends, etc. We need to realize that there are times when language will be used in some of these things in an attempt to exert some type of power or control over us. Thus, I think we should all become linguistic versions of Harry Potter or Gandalf the White, and we should be able to learn not only to recognize when the power of language is being used for something bad, but we should also use our own power of language for good.
NOTE: This is a re-post from my linguistics blog. If you want to read more about things like this, find my other blog at http://litandlinguistics.blogspot.com/
Title is slightly hyperbolic. However, we did just have about a foot of snow where I live which is a lot more than Oregon usually gets. Just how much more than usual, you may ask? Well, about a foot of snow is pretty much eleven inches more than we usually have here. Needless to say, the last few days have kind of sucked. Having time off of school is kind of nice, but I’m getting pretty close to cabin fever. Now I recognize that whining about it never got anybody anywhere, but here’s a list of things that I hate about the snow:
And did I mention that it’s been cold?
You can find a lot of weird crap in public bathrooms (heh). Usually, this kind of thing comes from people with more markers than sense just looking for a way to express themselves. Every once in a while, however, you come across a real gem: something that makes you think; makes you laugh; or leaves you wondering what someone was thinking. Today’s example of this came to me in the form of this sign:
Harvested Rainwater Toilet. Of course I’m not going to drink this water. Why they felt the need to make a sign telling me not to is completely beyond me.
Coca-Cola Company put its hands in a hornets’ nest (metaphorically speaking). It’s not often that us linguists get to talk about the Superbowl, but this last one had something interesting come up. Alright, it’s true that I’m not actually talking about the Superbowl per se, but the commercials are almost as important a part of the Superbowl as the game itself. Coca-Cola’s #AmericaisBeautiful advertisement had people singing “America the Beautiful” in quite a few different languages that in a lot of ways accurately represented the multiple languages that are found here. This is where the hornets’ nest comes in. There were actually quite a lot of people who were extremely offended that an American patriotic song was being sung in languages other than English.
A lot of people don’t realize this, but the U.S. is actually rather different from most other countries in that it is almost a completely monolingual culture. This is due to the fact that the U.S. is, for one thing, very large, and for another, actually fairly isolated. Unlike many of the countries in Europe or other parts of the world, there isn’t a very significant amount of language mixing that happens here. It happens, of course, but not to the extent that it happens in other, smaller countries that share borders with multiple different countries. One of the effects of this monolingualism is that we sometimes become uncomfortable around other languages. This can, of course, be kind of fun sometimes because if you speak another language and you know somebody else who speaks that language, the two of you can speak it around people who don’t know that language and try to gauge their reactions. Most likely, they will hover somewhere between curious and uncomfortable. The humor aside, this does bring up something interesting about how language is viewed in a monolingual culture. It’s almost treated as though there is something wrong with speaking another language other than the majority language. This is, of course, made all the more interesting by the fact that the U.S. doesn’t actually have an official national language. This is also a little known and seldom acknowledged fact about language in the U.S.
If it was the case that the U.S. had an official language, then Coca-Cola Company would probably have been making an interesting political statement with their commercial. As it stands, however, the only thing the Coca-Cola Company did was acknowledge the fact that though we Americans might say it in different ways and, as the case may be, in different languages, we are all still saying the same thing:
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
And if that doesn’t make you feel patriotic, then probably nothing will. Either that or you’re from another country…
Here’s the video:
Note: This is a copy-post from my other blog. If you all are interested in linguistics and literature, you can find that blog at http://litandlinguistics.blogspot.com/.
A few days ago, I was taking a quiz for one of my classes. This was one of those lovely little things that
tests your ability to take standardized tests makes sure you’ve been keeping up with the class readings. However, something interesting happened on this one: the last question was completely blank. The teacher had forgotten to actually put the text of the question into test. Being somewhat curious as to the result, I answered the question as true (it was a true false question) and clicked submit. I got the answer right. After asking some of my classmates about it, I realized many of them had done the same thing. As amusing of an anecdote as this is, it reminded me of something interesting. All of us saw nothing there and said it was true.
I apologize in advance for taking a funny story and make a philosophical critique out of it, but it does illustrate an interesting point about contemporary Western society’s thought: in many ways, truth has become so relative that we feel like we can take something that isn’t there at all and call it true. This is one of those thought patterns that is so prevalent in society that most people operate within this framework without being able to even define or name it. However, it does have a name: existentialism. Essentially, the idea is that the world around us is a falsehood and only our perceptions of the world are what make it real. Thus, a question like the one in the story above would have to be true because so many people were agreeing that it was true. This sounds like a strange proposition, but it is actually a philosophy that dominates much of contemporary thought. We have an idea that we need to find our own truths; find our own selves as though both of them existed separate from us, and the only way to do that is to make a truth in your own mind or make a self in your own mind.
This is illustrated rather nicely in Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West.” This poem is something of an example of the fullest extent of existentialist thought. The poem is about a woman singing next to the sea, and instead of being awestruck at the nature where she is, she is actually the one creating her surroundings through her song: “It may be that in all her phrases stirred/The grinding water and the gasping wind;/But it was she and not the sea we heard.” In other words, it is the singer that is primary in the poem because without her, the scene, the song, and by extension, everything else would cease to be. The poem continues the thought by becoming more explicit in another line calling her “the single artificer of the world.” Although this poem was written in 1934, the ideas behind it are still very much present, and many of the existentialist ideas are the seeds of thought that grew into contemporary postmodernism.
With any philosophy, it is important to think of the consequences of adopting this mode of thinking. The most obvious consequence of existentialist thought is that it actually denies the existence of (capital T) Truth. In other words, it denies the existence of any kind of thing that can be true apart from humanity. The obvious pitfall being moral relativism. The consequence of existentialist thought where everyone creates truth for themselves is that people instantly make morality just as relative as truth. In other words, the two are actually inseparable: you need Truth to have any type of morality. And that kind of Truth cannot be created by us. However, Truth should influence us. This is not a question of creating individual truth, this is a matter of finding out what is true outside of the individual self.
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” -John 8: 31-32.
I cannot think of a better piece of advice than the old saying “choose your battles.” This means that there are some things worth fighting for and some things that could really be let go. At first glance, the ban on 40 and 60 watt incandescent lightbulbs that has been put into effect seems like a battle that is not worth choosing. After all, the bulbs themselves are inefficient, and they are quickly being replaced by fluorescent and LED alternatives anyway, so why not just have the government make a switch over to the more efficient lightbulbs for everyone? As it turns out, things are never quite that simple. In fact, this is actually a quite complicated issue.
There are two things I don’t want to talk about here. The first is personal taste. Personally, I don’t like the light that the fluorescent and LED bulbs produce. But that is entirely beside the point. The second thing is the environment. A more efficient lightbulb is going to be better for the environment, and with all that is going on with climate change, it is making more and more sense to be more efficient with the energy we are using. However, that is beside the point as well. The only thing that really matters with this new ban is governmental control. The question is: should the government have the right to tell you what you can and cannot buy and tell companies what they can and cannot produce? I’m not asking if the government can do this. The ban was originally put into effect in 2007 with President Bush, so they clearly have the ability to do something like this. The real question that needs to be asked is should the government have this ability.
The question basically boils down to ends and means. In this case, the end– being better for the environment– is actually pretty good. We should probably be doing our part to help not ruin the only planet we live on, and one of the ways we can do that is by being better with the energy we use. So from that viewpoint, it would make sense to switch over to a more efficient bulb. However, that end, no matter how justifiable, should not give the government the right to tell you what you can and cannot buy. Especially given the fact that the market itself was already heading toward more energy efficient lightbulbs anyway, the government really had no reason to step in and try to mess with the market. At least, at the surface level there’s no reason for it. Go a little deeper, however, and it’s pretty easy to see the reasoning. Government itself, as an entity; as an institution, exists by and through control of people. The more control that entity has, the bigger it can be. The bigger it gets, the more power it has to take more control, and the cycle continues. One of the ways this control is exercised is in the market.
A free market– a truly free market– is a symbiotic relationship between consumer and seller; i.e., they both need the other to exist. However, in a free market, the consumer is always the one who has control. In other words, if more and more people begin to buy one type of thing, then the sellers are going to start producing more and more of that thing and less and less of the thing that people aren’t buying anymore. For our example, more people have been buying energy efficient lightbulbs, so (obviously) more of those lightbulbs are going to be produced. This process would likely continue until all or almost all of the incandescent lightbulbs would be gone from the market. In this system, people; regular people like you and me, are the ones who are in full control over what gets produced and what gets used. The only trouble with this is that this idea of free market has pretty much never completely been done. At some point, the government always steps into the market and takes your control of the market, and my control of the market, and your friend’s control of the market, away from all of us. This allows the government to become bigger and more powerful, and it makes the average people who are just trying to go to the store to get a lightbulb weaker and weaker.
So should the government have the right to ban things the way it’s doing this year? Perhaps a more poignant question would be how much personal liberty are you willing to give up? For my part, I’m not willing to give up much of it, so, for me, the answer is no, no one should be able to dictate where you put your money but you. While lightbulbs are not the most important battle to choose, your personal freedom is something worth fighting for. So choose your battles, but at the same time, remember the cost if you lose them.